Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, “The Retrieval” is an understated yet emotionally charged film about a pair of black men who work for a group of white bounty hunters. Their main purpose is to gain the trust of, and ultimately betray, runaway slaves to the bounty hunters, led by Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.).
Now, the group is on the track of a big payday in the form of a freed slave working as a gravedigger for the Union army. But not daring to cross the Union line, Burrell instructs 13-year-old Will (Ashton Sanders) and his abusive uncle Marcus (Keston John) to go north and bring him back.
After making their plans to betray him, the duo finds and convinces Nate (Tishuan Scott) that his dying brother wants to see him before he dies. Nate hesitates at first, but agrees to follow in the end.
Young Will begins their journey back with one thing in mind — making enough money to find his father, who went missing on a trip to the north. But as he spends more time with the man he’s to turn over to the bounty hunters, he realizes he’s not what they made him out to be.
Nate starts becoming the father figure the youth has longed for, and his uncle sees his grip on Will beginning to slip away. The group is caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate in which Marcus is shot and killed.
Without the influence of his uncle, Will’s struggle to keep his secret grows as they inch closer and closer to the abandoned shed the duo earlier decided on to serve as their ambush point.
Along their route, Nate instructs Will, “Someday you’ll have to be your own man.” When faced with the moment to hand Nate over to Burrell, Will becomes the man he’s longed to be.
“The Retrieval” is a gem of a film. Its power comes not from what is shown on the screen, but what resonates in each silent moment and the emotions that play in the characters’ eyes.
Newcomer Sanders holds his own with his older counterparts and shows no signs of his limited experience on camera. Oberst Jr. is downright spooky as Burrell. He’s everything you want in a villain and more.
Scott delivers an amazingly powerful performance as the freed slave Nate. The actor deftly blends subtlety and power and gives one of my favorite performances of the year. They say eyes are the window to the soul, and that’s where Scott excels. He commands your attention with a simple look.
Writer/director Chris Eska does something wondrous with “The Retrieval”: He takes his time. Eska lets his tale unfold at its own pace, which results in a story whose tension builds throughout and leaves you breathless when Will is faced with the decision of turning Nate over or helping him run.
“The Retrieval” is a powerful coming-of-age story that hits all the right beats and is anchored by a commanding performance by Tishuan Scott. It’s a definite must-see.